North Fork jazz great Teddy Charles dead at 84

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04/17/2012 8:42 PM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Jazz musician Teddy Charles of Greenport and Riverhead died Monday.

Teddy Charles, who during a career as a pioneering jazz musician played with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and other legendary performers, died Monday at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead at age 84.

More recently, Mr. Charles, a former Greenporter who lived in Riverhead for the past eight years, was known for his love of the sea and as Captain Ted Charles owned and operated the skipjack Pilgrim out of Greenport Harbor. He was considered by many to be the most experienced owner-operator of commercial sailing charters on the east coast, sailing extensively from Martha’s Vineyard to the Caribbean.

Mr. Charles was considered to be one of the great jazz vibraphonists and composers of all time. But his talents went beyond that one instrument.

“Everyone thinks of Ted as a jazz musician. What must don’t know is that he was an accomplished classical pianist,” said former Greenport Mayor David Kapell, whose father, William Kapell, was considered one of the most brilliant American pianists of his time. “When I once went to visit Teddy at home years ago, he was alone in the house playing the piano with impressive virtuosity. Seems he reverted to classical music in his private moments.”

Former Greenport trustee Mike Osinski, who runs an oyster business, recalled Mr. Charles giving his children music lessons every Saturday.

“He  became family,” said Mr. Osinski. “I gave him a dock for the Pilgrim, his last big sailboat, even bought him an one cylinder diesel so he could get in and out of Widow’s Hole.  One afternoon, after helping him clean his boat, my kids ran back into the house shouting, ‘Ted’s swimming around the creek in his underwear.’  I hope I’m doing that in my eighties.”

He was born Theodore Charles Cohen in Chicopee Falls, Mass., on April 13, 1928. As a student at the Julliard School of Music in the mid 1940s, he haunted New York’s jazz clubs, occasionally sitting in with the bands on vibes or piano.

He later recorded and played solo and with bands as Teddy Cohen before changing his last name to Charles in 1951.

His break came unexpectedly one night when he was asked to sit in on piano with Coleman Hawkin’s band for the overdue Thelonious Monk. Soon after, Mr. Charles began to appear regularly with the top jazz groups of the day — Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Buddy De Franco — playing alongside and writing for jazz greats. In the early 1950s, he began leading his own groups, composing, producing and recording original works such as “No More Nights,” “Blues Become Elektra”  and “Word from Bird.”

In recent years he appeared with Max Roach, David Amram and Lee Konitz.

When jazz’s popularity began to fade in the 1960s, he took a break from the music world to follow the other great love of his life: the sea. He left the icy streets of New York and headed for the balmy Caribbean, where he sailed the famous Golden Eagle, formerly owned by the DuPont family, and became one of the pioneering American charter boat skippers in the Caribbean.

He later bought and restored the derelict Tiki, the famed 85-foot wooden schooner from the 1950s TV series “Adventures in Paradise,” and began running a charter service out of Martinique. In 1980, he switched from running charters to carrying cargo including rum and soap from Antigua.

It didn’t take long for him to realize that the Tiki wasn’t built for cargo.

“It was too hard on a wood ship at many of the wharves we tied up at,” Mr. Charles said in a 1984 article in Soundings, a boating magazine. “The swells would pound the boat right into the wharf.”

The article was written by David Berson of Greenport, the captain of the Greenport-based electric tour boat “Glory” and an amateur musician.

“Teddy was a musical prodigy who had his last name given to him by the great Charles Mingus,” Mr. Berson said this week. “He combined his love of the sea and music in a manner that no one had ever done before, or may ever do again. He added his own personality to the mix and will be missed.”

Mr. Charles first raced in small centerboard sloops called “zips” in Long Island Sound off Clinton, Conn., in the mid-1940s. He bought his first boat in 1958. In his Soundings profile, Mr. Berson wrote that when Mr. Charles was invited to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1959, he decided to sail there from New York. And although he great trip, he didn’t arrive in time for his performance.

Since the mid 1960s, Mr. Charles has owned and operated commercial charter vessels from ports such as New York’s City Island and South Street Seaport, Miami and Key West, and throughout the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean.

Returning to New York after spending a decade in the Caribbean, Mr. Charles became the owner of the famed Seven Seas Sailing Club of City Island. In 1973, he bought and restored the Mary E., a 1906 swordfishing schooner, and in 1990 brought her to Greenport.

Arrangements are pending, but a memorial service will take place at 2 p.m. this Sunday, April 22, at D’Latte, the Main Street, Greenport, restaurant where Mr. Charles played on occasion. Musicians are encouraged to bring their instruments.